Review: Sweeney Todd

Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd
(©NY Philharmonic)

The brilliant score of Sweeney Todd doesn’t lend itself well to minimalism, as the 2005 stripped-down Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic well demonstrated. There were no such problems with the concert version recently performed by the New York Philharmonic featuring a stellar cast including opera singer Bryn Terfel as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and, making her New York stage debut, Emma Thompson as his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett. The rich, powerful score has never sounded better, with the choral sections in particular providing no shortage of goose bumps. Those not lucky enough to have seen the show during its distressingly short run will be consoled by the knowledge that it was filmed for future broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances.

Hewing to the formula of his successful concert staging of Sondheim’s Company, director Lonny Price provides enough clever theatrical touches to make this far more than a mere recital. That’s evident from the ingenious opener, in which the entire cast troops onstage clad in formal clothing and assumes stiff positions behind music stands. As the music begins, it doesn’t take long for them to topple the stands to the ground, bust up several pieces of scenery, invert a grand piano, and tear off pieces of their clothing. This Sweeney Todd will clearly be no decorous affair.

That level of theatricality is not entirely sustained over the course of the evening, when the limitations of the staging fail to make the plot’s complexities fully comprehensible. But save for newcomers to the work, that’s hardly much of a problem. Its raison d’etre is to deliver the magnificence of the score, and in that it entirely succeeds.

Terfel’s booming bass-baritone voice infuses such numbers as “Ephiphany” and “My Friends” with a chilling ferocity. And though the singer doesn’t quite possess the actorly skills to fully delineate the character’s complexity, his menacingly powerful stage presence provides ample compensation. His Sweeney is perhaps the most frightening since Len Cariou in the original Broadway production.

There had been some advance trepidation about whether Thompson, whose sole previous musical credit was a stint in the 1985 West End production of Me and My Girl, would possess the sufficient vocal chops. But the actress, adopting a pitch-perfect Cockney accent, doesn’t disappoint. Her singing of the challenging score is clear and assured, and deeply moving in such numbers as “Not While I’m Around.” Not surprisingly, her delivery of songs like “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest” is infused with sublime comic flair. While her antic Mrs. Lovett is somewhat less down and dirty than some of her predecessors—she’s far more lovable than deranged—it’s a wonderful performance whose impact will only be magnified on the small screen.

The members of the ensemble are equally expert in their supporting roles: Jay Armstrong Johnson and Erin Mackey are affecting as the young lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna; Christian Borle is hilariously over-the-top as the rival Italian barber Pirelli; and Jeff Bllumencrantz is entertainingly weaselly as his cohort Beadle. Making his long overdue New York stage debut is three-time Oliver Award-winner Philip Quast, who brings unexpected dramatic shadings to the malevolent Judge Turpin. While lucky audiences at the first few performances were treated to the unannounced appearance of Audra McDonald as the beggar woman, Bryonha Marie Parham, who played the role on Saturday, was an able replacement.

But the true star of the evening is the glorious score featuring Jonathan Tunick’s intricate arrangements as superbly rendered by the 52-member orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert. Such numbers as “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (unforgivably excised from Tim Burton’s ill-conceived movie adaptation) and “City on Fire” register with such a visceral ferocity that the deafening air horn blasts at key dramatic moments seem entirely redundant.

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

Review: Die Fledermaus

Anthony Roth Costanzo and Paulo Szot in Die Fledermaus
(©Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)


The Metropolitan Opera appropriately ushered in the New Year with Die Fledermaus, Johann Stauss Jr.’s classic comedic operetta set on New Year’s Eve. Revised with new English language lyrics and dialogue by theatrical veterans Jeremy Sams and Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act, Cinderella) respectively, the glittering production manages to entertain despite some glaring missteps that rob the effervescent work of much of its fizz.

Updated to turn-of-the-century Vienna, the new version directed by Sams retains the familiar story of duplicitous Gabriel von Eisenstein (Christopher Maltman) and his long-suffering wife Rosalinde (Susanna Phillips) attending a glittery New Year’s Eve ball at the palatial home of Prince Orlofsky (Anthony Roth Costanzo) at their behest of their friend Dr. Falke (Paulo Szot). Falke is intent on getting revenge on Eisenstein, who is supposed to report to jail for having assaulted a policeman, over a slight years earlier, while Rosalinde is determined to catch her cheating spouse in the act. To that end, she poses as a Hungarian countess who her oblivious husband is promptly intent on seducing. Also present at the ball is the couple’s maid Adele (Jane Archibald), who has pretended to be visiting her dying aunt, and the jail’s warden Frosch (Danny Burstein), disguised as a Frenchman. Farcical complications ensue.

Unfortunately, the usually lighter-than-air piece has here been burdened with reams of expository dialogue that slows the action down and results in a bloated running time of nearly four hours. Both the book and lyrics feature loads of broadly comic, often contemporary jokes that frequently border on bad taste, including an ill-conceived Holocaust reference. The new English language lyrics, often on the order of “Let’s canoodle, my strudel,” prove frequently awkward for the singers, even if they don’t fully detract from the pleasures of the gorgeously melodic score.

Even such seemingly sure-fire comic interludes as Frosch’s fourth wall-breaking address to the audience fall short, despite the spirited vaudevillian shtick by Broadway veteran Burstein (South Pacific, Follies). The comedy routine stuffed with gags referencing such targets as Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Sound of Music, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and child molesting priests produces some genuine laughs but goes on far too long.

Other vulgar touches include the sexily revealing costumes worn by the gorgeously lithe dancers at the party and such bizarre aspects of the lavish set designs as the Christmas tree and menorah decorating the Einsenstein’s home.

To be fair, goofy humor has always proved an integral element to productions of this lighthearted work. But the tone-deaf aspects of most of the comic flourishes prove more wearisome than exhilarating.

Still, under the spirited conducting of Adam Fischer, the orchestra and singers do ample justice to the music. Particular standouts include Michael Fabiano, displaying a gorgeous tenor as Rosalinde’s ardent suitor, Alfred; countertenor Costanzo, unveiling thrilling high notes as the outlandishly costumed Orlofsky; and Szot, whose resonant baritone remains ever thrilling.

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. 212-362-6000. Through Feb. 22.

Review: Rigoletto

©Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

It’s not often you see a half-naked pole dancer cavorting onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House. But that’s just one of the many startling sights in their new production of Rigoletto. Staged by theater director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) in his Met Opera debut, this audacious version of Verdi’s 1851 classic has been reset to 1960’s era Las Vegas. And while the updating has the sort of logistical flaws typical of such operatic revampings, it’s an entertainingly robust and imaginative rendition that should attract fresh audiences.

There’s no doubt that we’re no longer in 15th century Italy from the first glimpse of Christine Jones’ lavish set design of a Vegas casino emblazoned with neon signs and the performers clad in Susan Hilferty’s tacky, brightly-colored costumes. Here, the Duke (Piotr Beczala) is a womanizing, Sinatra-style lounge singer in a white dinner jacket, grabbing a microphone to sing his aria “Questa o quella” to an adoring crowd.

The hunchbacked Rigoletto (Zeljko Lucic) is his sidekick, an abrasive, Don-Rickles type comedian. The basic story, adapted from a Victor Hugo play, manages to come through clearly in this conception. The Duke seduces Rigoletto’s beautiful virginal daughter Gilda (Diana Damrau), thereby incurring his wrath. He hires a killer, Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan), to exact revenge, with inevitable tragic results.

This sort of thing has been done many times before, with Rigoletto in particular having undergone numerous transformations in its long performance history, including a famous version staged by Jonathan Miller for the English National Opera that was set in 1950’s Little Italy. But the opera, unlike certain others in the standard repertory, is strong enough to endure such tampering. Here, even the jarringly slang-laden translation delivered via surtitles is more amusing than heretical.

And, as is usual for the Met, the production is beautifully sung. Polish tenor Beczala does beautifully by such familiar arias as La donna e mobile” while delivering a smoothly charismatic performance. Serbian baritone Lucic makes a strong vocal impression as the Duke, even if his acting leaves something to be desired. German soprano Damrau sings luminously as the doomed Gilda, and Slovakian bass Kocan makes for a memorably oily hit man, inspiring chills with his deep rumblings. Belarussian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova is also memorable, both visually and aurally, as Sparafucile’s seductive sister Maddalena. Italian conductor Michele Mariotti presides over the proceedings expertly, fully mining the riches of Verdi’s score.

Clever touches abound, such as when Gilda’s near-dead body is disposed of not by bundling it into a sack but instead stuffed into the truck of a vintage Cadillac. During the storm scenes, flash of neon lightning crisscross the set. And Monterone (Robert Pomakov), the count who places a fateful curse on

Purists will inevitably scoff. But there’s no denying that this Rigoletto is a freshly invigorating, especially when compared to such recent Met productions as their drearily monochromatic Don Giovanni. And it will probably play terrifically in its Feb. 16 broadcast as part of the increasingly popular Live in HD series, shown in movie theaters around the world.

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. 212-362-6000. Through May 1.

Review: Laura Osnes at Cafe Carlyle

© Stephen Sorokoff

As show business Cinderella stories go, it’s one of the best. In just a few short years, 26-year-old Laura Osnes has gone from unknown reality show competition winner to bona-fide Broadway star. After playing Sandy in the Broadway revival of Grease that was her prize for winning on TV’s Grease: You’re on the One That I Want, she’s gone on to starring roles in South Pacific, Anything Goes, and a Tony nomination for Bonnie and Clyde. Add to that acclaimed turns in the Encores! production of Pipe Dream, a concert version of The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall, and the title role in the upcoming revival of Cinderella, and it’s easy to imagine what comes next.


A cabaret debut, of course, as has become de rigueur for Broadway leading ladies. And what better place than the swanky Café Carlyle, where the gorgeous, fresh-faced ingénue is delivering an evening that serves as both a showcase for her gorgeous soprano and an audition for upcoming starring roles.


Such as Marian in The Music Man, from which she sings “’Til There Was You.” Or Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, from which she not only belts out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” but also plays a tape of her singing it when she was just a child.


Although it contains touches of sensuality, such as an irony-free rendition of “Fever” and the skintight dress that shows off her perfect figure, the evening is mostly a wholesome one. Romantics certainly swooned on opening night when she brought out her equally adorable husband to sing with her on “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.


Accompanied by a first-rate quartet led by pianist/musical director Fred Lassen, Osnes alternates between selections from her theater repertoire--such as “How ‘Bout a Dance” from the ill-fated Bonnie & Clyde and a rewritten version of “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music—and such pop gems as Sara Bareilles’ “Bluebird,” Norah Jones’ “Sunrise” and a couple of songs by Randy Newman, including “When She Loved Me,” movingly dedicated to her late mother.


The opening night crowd was also treated to a special guest appearance by her Anything Goes co-star Joel Grey, who dueted on an endearingly ragged version of “Friendship” in which both forgot lyrics and an amusing “Pineapple Song” from Cabaret.


Although her crystalline voice shines, Osnes still has a ways to go in terms of lyrical interpretation and full emotional connection with her material. But give her some time—she’s still at the beginning of what is undoubtedly going to be a long and successful career.


Café Carlyle, 35 E. 76th St. 212-744-1600.

Review: Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China’s First Emperors
Spy: The Secret World of Espionage

Photo courtesy of the company

Thanks to Discovery Times Square, there’s a lot more to do in the theater district than just see a Broadway show. This massive space located in the former digs of the New York Times has played host to a series of fascinating exhibitions, with this summer’s diverse offerings being Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China’s First Emperor and the rather more modern Spy: The Secret World of Espionage.


Unless you’re fortunate enough to be visiting China, Terracotta Warriors is the closest you’ll get to these magnificent figures that are more than 2,000 years old. Or, at least a tiny portion of them: The show includes only ten (the maximum allowed to leave China) of the some 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors, each weighing approximately 600 pounds, which were built for the tomb of the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shiguangdi to protect him in the afterlife.  


Buried with him in the second century BCE, they were only discovered by accident in 1974 by some farmers who were digging a well outside the city of Xian. A massive museum eventually sprung up to showcase them, although since then samples have toured museums throughout the world.


And now they’ve shown up in Times Square, in a beautifully laid-out exhibition that well showcases their ancient glory. The bright colors that once adorned the hyper-realistic figures have long since faded away. But as dramatically lit and presented here, they exert a compelling fascination nonetheless.


Representing various military ranks from generals to foot soldiers, this clay figures feature elaborate uniforms, unique facial expressions and, in one striking case, a life-size horse.


There’s much more to see as well. Brief film selections provide historical background information, which you’ll no doubt find illuminating unless you happen to be up on ancient Chinese history. The exhibition also includes over 200 artifacts from the period, many of which were originally buried with the warriors in the emperor’s tomb. They include a spectacular suit of armor, jewelry, musical instruments, a bronze ritual vessel, gold ornaments, and most notably, gates from an ancient Han burial chamber that is being displayed for the first time since its discovery.

Photo courtesy of the company

The most appropriate attire for attending Spy: The Secret World of Espionage is a trench coat and fedora, the better to get you into the proper frame of mind for this fascinating show of objects relating to the world of espionage. Culled from the collections of the CIA, FBI, National Reconnaissance Office and especially the voluminous private collection of historian H. Keith Melton (author of such books as The Ultimate Spy and the forthcoming Spy’s Guide to New York City), the exhibition provides endless insight into the world of spies, largely through the tools of the trade.        


Thus you’ll see such artifacts, many of them previously hidden, as a collapsible motorbike employed by Allied parachute forces in World War II; a dead rat with a hollow cavity used for dead drops in Moscow during the Cold War (hot pepper sauce was sprinkled on them to prevent them from being carried away by rapacious cats); a lifelike robot catfish, one of only two in existence; an Enigma Machine used by German military forces to create supposedly unbreakable codes;  a STASI infrared attaché case equipped for covert photography; and a KGB model of the bugged  US Embassy building in Moscow.


History buffs, albeit those of a ghoulish bent, will be thrilled to see the actual blood-stained axe used in the assassination of Leon Trotsky as well as the broken eyeglasses of his killer.


There are special sections devoted to such topics as homing pigeons that were used as couriers in World War II; U-2 spy planes, such as the one piloted by Gary Powers shot down by a Russian missile; and such recent infamous traitors as Aldrich Ames, John Walker and Robert Hanssen. There’s also special attention paid to Anna Chapman, the comely but amateurish Russian spy who achieved tabloid notoriety.


The show also includes cheesy interactive elements in which you can alter your own photograph and voice and dodge laser beams in Mission: Impossible style. And I’m not sure it needed to include a full-size recreation of the Oval Office. But these quibbles aside, Spy compellingly brings to light the gritty professional details of a milieu most of us know only from headlines and sensationalistic thrillers.


Discovery Times Square, 226 W. 44th St. 866-987-9862. Terracotta Warriors through Aug. 26. Spy through Mar. 31.

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